What happens in Vegas determines where I’ll go to college

Thoughts about traveling to Sin City for the SAT Test

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Michael Balerite, Editor

A cold breeze from the air conditioning hits me the wrong way, rousing me from my sleep. I glance at my phone, with three minutes left to spare on the alarm. It’s 6:12, and a faint odor of pre-packaged noodles catches my attention. 

I throw the curtains open to find myself glancing at the MGM, and the Mirage, and the Cosmopolitan, all within the breadth of my off-Strip suite. I repeat the four words the College Board gave to me – ID, calculator, pencils, ticket. Mustn’t forget, though – make those pencils No. 2. I never got why that was. 

I check my phone to find wonderful news- Tottenham Hotspur beat Watford last night, one to nil. Only a dilettante of the intricacies of association football, I wasn’t shocked; perhaps I should have given the game more thought, but considering my circumstances, why should I? 

I depart from my hotel at 7:07, half-tired and half-amazed at the city at my disposal. For those twenty minutes in the car, I became marveled and then dispassionate at this metropolis, once an old Mormon fort, now one of the largest tourist traps in the world. The immense inequality struck me like a train- how could casinos grow tall and high rollers grow prosperous while the homeless stood only meters away in the shadows of it all? 

It is a question best left to future Michael- he has work to do, and his urban studies-loving side of him isn’t being tested on, today at Rancho High.

News organizations throughout the United States have been predicting the end of the SAT for as long as anyone can remember. An opinion piece by the Los Angeles Times from 2016 bemoaned the laughable correlation (or lack thereof) between the test and markers of intelligence, while the Washington Post in 2019 criticized the racial disparities it seemed to emphasize.

But actions speak louder than words, and in May of this year, the University of California declared that they would no longer be using the SAT or ACT in its considerations for admission. Yet even with this news, SAT centers are chock full of young seniors, juniors, and even underclassmen looking to get those four numbers that might just determine their future. And for some, it’s not just a recommendation but a requirement, either from college counselors who haven’t gotten the memo, or tiger parents who think the requirement drop is all but a conspiracy to push their child into- God forbid- a public school!

Admittedly, not all blame can be shifted onto them; many scholarship programs and schools, including the United States Military Academies, still require an SAT score. This is highly problematic- if our own government depends on a company that’s monopolized the industry of standardized testing, then there’s a lot of work to be done.

Something is out of place.

Odd.

There’s a truckload of parents here, walking their kids to the door. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this… this is just a test. There’s no need to chaperone these grown teenagers, young adults, to their rooms. I’d never seen such lunacy before, and perhaps it’s an oddity consigned to the history books after this COVID-19 spell, something that I will never see again.

The green doors are opened to me by a kind stranger, and reveal a large labyrinth of bridges, rooms, hallways to the endless void of homecoming posters from two years ago and masking announcements from the State of Nevada. I find my way to the ascending staircase, revealing even more unknown rooms before I am asked to stand in line, behind twenty other students and their parents, looking as if they had stayed up for an entire week.

After a short encounter with someone who checked my papers to see if they were fit and legal for College Board’s whims, I make my way to a small classroom decked out in algebra merch from a teacher all too eager to promote the fashions of STEM learning. The proctor, who is a tall but quite squat man, lends me a handful of pencils before I make my way to a seat in the back of the classroom, firmly sealed with a silence and a tension you could cut with a knife.

“So… are you anywhere from here?” I try my best not to make it sound flirtatious.

“Ha… no. California.”

I’m not alone.

The silence breaks.

I hear more stories of Californians stranded in the middle of the desert, forced to take a test hundreds of miles away from their home. The girl behind me is from Mountain View. To the left, Arcadia. In front of her, Palo Alto (she and the girl behind me were on the same flight from Mineta to McCarran, actually). To my right, Yorba Linda. Someone on the other side of the classroom, Sacramento. Diamond Bar. Alameda. 

We start comparing student IDs. Talk about how our football teams were good, or bad, or somewhere in between. Laugh about how our school colors look weird from a distance. One person jokes about how their volleyball team went against a strange school in the Central Valley called James C. Enochs High School the other week.

All friends I would make, all friends I would probably never see again.

The time is called.

“Name, address, school, you know the drill.”

I place my pencil to the Scantron. Unfamiliar words spew from it. 

Las Vegas, Nevada. Eight, nine, one-oh-one. I feel at peace, in this calm before the storm. Perhaps this is the place, the stage, for whether I get into Harvard University. Or not. Who cares? This is just a stupid test.

Rancho High.

The standardized testing industry has been marred by controversy after controversy of those in the upper class trying to game the system. It was only two years ago, in 2019, that Operation Varsity Blues revealed a plethora of celebrities who employed a fraudulent college search service which helped students of the rich and wealthy gain admission into the world’s best colleges and universities. Many of these admissions were based on two strategies of bluff: fictitious sports achievements, and falsified standardized test scores. 

While this clear-cut case of criminal conning has been thoroughly investigated and rooted out, the disparities it represents still ring true, with SAT scores from those who self-report family incomes of $200,000 or more being higher on average than those who earn less than $50,000 per annum. 

And that’s a big difference- one that can be revealed by the things parents are willing to do for their children to go to the big leagues. Rich parents are keen to pay expensive tutors, avail of extensive college support programs, and enroll their kids in pre-professional research positions and internships not even undergrads have had the chance to take. In comparison, those who find themselves in poorer circumstances don’t have as many disposable resources to begin with – leaving teenagers without much direction or push. 

Looking at the SAT itself, it seems as if those from lower-income families still have a great plethora of opportunities to take advantage of: College Board provides fee waivers which grant them two free SATs, and, prior to the discontinuation of the SAT Subject Tests, six of those. But $55 is still a large amount of money, and if richer families can afford it, they will take more of it. 

Anecdotally speaking, some parents that I talked to in Las Vegas said that they applied for the exam five times before coming to Nevada- a show of desperation, but also of their ability to be flexible with their time and energy. And a whole exodus through the Mojave Desert is a hard sell even to those who are able to do it- hitting Sin City on a school weekend isn’t what parents really want, perhaps less for the kids, but more for themselves. 

When fifty schools in California cancel, limiting the already small number of schools that administer the test down to a small few, it makes a scary world of college applications more and more confusing, forcing those who do not have the ability to navigate it out of the admissions pool, leaving only those who can afford it.

And statistics-wise, that’s a small, small number.

A periodic beeping emanates from a faraway room, from a computer crying to be shut off for the weekend.

I thought we were afforded silence.

I look down at the carpet. Then to the side. Then to the other side.

Why do so many girls here have the same Nike Air Force 1s? 

I look to the people to my sides. Without my glasses, I can’t make out the individual answers they wrote, but I can see what they’re doing. They’re underlining, annotating, making citations and captions and comments to themselves.

Byron, forgive me, for I know not what I do. I was never taught the ways of the ancient masters, of performing magic jutsus with my pencil in order to reveal the answers hidden in the words.

I feel pangs of stress in my chest and spells of confusion in my head. What did they know that I didn’t? What did they read that I never laid eyes on? Who did they talk to that I never got to?

There is a time to read, and a time to show. Show what you’ve learned these past few years, jot them down in the pre-ordained formula, and go your merry way, and hope that the college gods will accept your offering of long-strained nights and chicken scratch-filled study sheets. And I, of little faith, had but a mustard seed of knowledge about sophomore year mathematical sophistics in my brain. Unfortunately, however, that just isn’t enough.

The proctor stands up.

Time.

“Stay somewhere quiet, so you can get a good night’s sleep beforehand, and be prepared for the weather conditions there,” says Alexandra Leon Guerrero, 16, a junior at Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, California. She joins hundreds of Californians who made the trip to Las Vegas to take the SAT. 

It’s an unusual thing to see, but for many students, it’s the only thing they can do. 

“No test centers were open nearby when I applied…so we decided to fly to Vegas,” Guerrero adds.

For some, the weekend is strictly business only; Guerrero mentioned coming in the night before and then leaving for the Bay Area right after the test ended at noon. Others, however, availed of the weekend’s opportunity to hit the town. 

“My parents have a timeshare in Las Vegas, it’s only a four or five-hour drive, and we wanted to have some fun after the test,” says Isabella He, 16, a senior at Arcadia High School in Arcadia, California. Some students and parents noted that the reason they picked Las Vegas as a prime testing location was due to the ample availability of accommodations throughout the city and region.

The travel, however, still took its toll on students, and with long stretches of highway and poor internet connectivity marking the drive to Las Vegas, it became difficult to make last-minute studying arrangements or even settle in to rest the night before. 

“I was really exhausted and fell asleep right when I got to the hotel, so I wasn’t able [to] do any last minute studying,” He noted. “Make sure you don’t arrive too late the night before and ensure you have time to mentally prepare yourself for the test.”

Motivations for taking the SAT varied from person to person; Guerrero indicated that it was a recommendation from her college counselor, saying that “[they] advised I take an SAT with no preparation so it could help me study for the PSAT,” a notably unorthodox departure from traditional methods of taking the PSAT first. He noted that it was her own choice to take the test, saying that “[taking the SAT] may help me in the college admissions process. My parents let me decide if I wanted to take it or not, and I wanted to.”

Whatever the case, the verdict remains the same amongst many attendees; they will take it again, wherever it may be, but do it somewhere preferably local.

“[I’ve] only applied once so far, and I’m planning to take it again in December,” says Guerrero.

“If you live in California, register early so that you can take it at your local high school,” adds He.

The stairs clank underneath my feet as I grasp my Doraemon bag next to me. I keep the Staedtler pencils in a pocket far, far away from me; it’s almost heretical for me to have held wooden, No. 2 pencils that weren’t of the Ticonderoga brand for so long. I see the same band of misfit parents at the bottom, looking for their children as if they were family waiting at the airport for arrivals. My father is somewhere back at the hotel, waiting for my call.

“So… what do you think of that test? How are you doing?”

“I’m doing. I try not to think of it.”

I step outside with a new friend of mine in the hot Las Vegas sun. It’s a toasty 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and I’m wearing a moderately thick jacket. I talk with her; she says she’s from Arcadia, a city I’ve faintly heard of in discussions about speech and debate. We stand, watching parents come and parents leave, before another new friend comes out to make more conversation.

“Archbishop Mitty?”

“Don’t even get me started.”

We bond over our similar love for competitiveness between schools, and at the ridiculousness of the situation- how three teenagers from Modesto, Arcadia, and Mountain View can come together in one of the strangest places and situations on Earth and be friends in such a short while.

The time passes, and they leave. I go back inside and try to talk to more people. I speak with a mother and son, clad in travel pillows and holding rolling luggage, who both lament the situation of SAT cancellations in the home state. (Perhaps it wasn’t the son. More so just the mother.) 

I converse with a Filipino couple waiting for their child to come out of the doors any minute now. They talk about her aspirations of playing tennis at UCLA, or maybe Pepperdine, or wherever the winds will take her. They speak in murmured but weary tones, discussing how hard it was to find a place to study, then a place to test, then a place to stay. We move on to different topics, talking about where our families our from, and when they came to the United States, in hopes of starting a new life- a successful life- for their children. 

After around twenty minutes, their daughter comes out. I greet her, and we part ways, never to meet again. I am alone once more.

I step out into the sun once again. I hear a voice speaking in Italian to someone on FaceTime. In the distance, a basketball scrimmage, bringing back memories of shoes shuffling, balls dribbling, scoreboards beeping to signal the score of yet another slam dunk-a-rooney, further coaxing faint memories from years past of happy laughter, silly phrases, and basketball jokes I could never understand, bringing a smile to my face.

I close my eyes and feel a cold breeze picking up pace. I will not forget, and I cannot forget, this pilgrimage made in frivolous dedication to the winds of education. I feel afloat, at home, at peace.

I’m not doing this again.